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Television

‘Modern Family’ creator returns to form with hilarious ‘Reboot’

Show about a show ditches tired mockumentary format

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The cast of ‘Reboot’ on Hulu. (Photo courtesy Hulu)

TV veteran Steven Levitan already had a lot of success as a writer, showrunner, and producer before the premiere of “Modern Family” – a series he co-created with Christopher Lloyd – in 2009. That show turned out to be a cultural phenomenon, helping to redefine and normalize the representation of LGBTQ relationships on TV by including a gay couple within its ensemble of central characters while also becoming a long-running fan-favorite, winning scores of awards (including nine primetime Emmys) and being nominated for scores more before airing its final season in 2020. Even with a resume that includes shows like “Wings,” “Frasier,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Just Shoot Me,” that’s got to be considered a career-topping triumph.

Now, Levitan is back with a new show, “Reboot,” which premiered on Hulu Sept. 20, and from its very first pre-credit sequence it signals a welcome return to the same rapid-fire comedic style that kept “Modern Family” on everybody’s weekly watchlist for 11 years – still inclusive, with prominent queer characters and storylines, but thankfully without the mockumentary format.

“Reboot” is a good-naturedly irreverent send-up of the Hollywood entertainment machine featuring “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom as Hannah, a TV writer who gets greenlighted on her pitch for a revival of “Step Right Up,” a beloved sitcom from the early 2000s. She manages to convince the original cast to reprise their roles as the show’s “wacky family” – despite their complicated offscreen history – by promising to adapt the show for a contemporary audience, eliminating the corny, outdated humor and shifting toward a more sophisticated, realistic tone. At the first table read, however, Hannah’s plan for a reimagined series is met with a significant obstacle – the unexpected presence of the original sitcom’s creator, Gordon Gelman (Paul Reiser), who has wielded his industry clout to insert himself into the mix as a showrunner and ensure that “woke” ideas about comedy don’t get in the way of the laughs.

Obviously, this scenario provides a ripe field for jokes about the cultural conflicts that have become a fact of life in 2022 – mostly around the differing attitudes between older and younger generations, always a sure-fire bet for relatable comedy. The “OK Boomer” sparring at its core is common fodder these days, but Levitan and his creative team know comedy well enough to make it feel fresh – and their secret is to make sure that the characters are always the main attraction.

In this case, they’ve given us plenty of them to choose from. Besides Hannah and Gordon, whose rivalry for the reins quickly becomes just one of many thorns in their relationship dynamic, we also get the leading players of “Step Right Up”: Reed Sterling (Keegan-Michael Key), a Yale-trained thespian who ditched the show’s first run to pursue a movie career that never materialized; Bree Marie Johnson (Judy Greer), a once-popular star who left showbiz for a now-failed marriage to an obscure Scandinavian Duke; Clay Barber (Johnny Knoxville), a “bad boy” stand-up comic known less for his talent than for being a train wreck; and Zack Jackson (Calum Worthy), a former child star who seems to have reached his mid-20s without actually growing up. Rounding out the main ensemble is Krista Marie Yu as Elaine, a young production exec transplanted from the tech industry whose fish-out-of-water incongruity provides a necessary outsider perspective amid the show-biz histrionics that surround her.

There’s a host of supporting characters, too – a roomful of writers, for instance, hilariously bridging the generation gap with their common love of comedy even as they clash over cultural values. Drawn in broad strokes, all of them could easily be dismissed as generic tropes, stock figures updated to fit the latest cultural zeitgeist; that they come off as fully realized human beings instead of lazy stereotypes is a testament to Levitan and the real-life writers’ room responsible for bringing them to life.

It’s also a testament to the actors who play them. Key and Greer have the biggest challenge, in many ways; their characters, cut from the same egocentric cloth as so many other parodies of vain and pretentious Hollywood stars and clearly designed to be adorably insufferable, come off in early episodes as simply insufferable. As the season progresses, fortunately, their skill as performers permits them (and their characters) to rise above the flaws and foibles and win us over. The ever-reliable Knoxville does what he does best – sending up his own wild-man persona – and occasionally reminds us that he’s not a bad actor, when he gets the chance; Worthy, an ex-Disney-kid also spoofing his own real-life image, likewise injects surprising doses of winning humanity as the show goes on.

As for Bloom, essentially the main character though surrounded by an ensemble of zanies, she holds her own with all the juggernaut talent she used to make “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” a wildly popular cult hit; required to be a grounding force while dealing with her own whirlwind of personal and professional dysfunction, she succeeds more than well enough to anchor the show. Finally, Reiser brings his status as a venerable sitcom legend to give his old-school character an appropriate presence, while making him much more layered and likable than the Archie Bunker-ish throwback we expect him to be.

With such a solid cast doing the heavy lifting onscreen, “Reboot” is able to cast its satirical net wide enough to poke fun at our rapidly changing culture without losing the important human connection that keeps its never-ending bombardment of one-liners – something for which Levitan’s previous shows have been widely known and admired – from feeling hollow. That doesn’t mean the comedy ever lulls; on the contrary, even the show’s most tender and meaningful moments – which often take us by pleasant surprise – are punctuated by zingers. And while the series leans hard into the kind of uncomplicated vibe that usually marks popular mainstream sitcoms, it also lets itself play at more complex levels, getting a lot of comedic mileage out of the inescapable “meta” quality of being a show about a show – for example, the fictional series, like the real one, is produced by Hulu, just one such cheeky touch among many that make it feel more subversive and iconoclastic than perhaps it really is.

What might work even more to the benefit of “Reboot” than the considerable lineup of talent it boasts both on and behind the screen is its format – and we’re not just talking about its choice to eschew the mockumentary thing, a masterfully innovative tactic that has now become tired from overuse, even on Emmy-favored “Abbot Elementary.” In the new era of streaming content, the 23-episode season feels like an increasingly outmoded way of doing things; with only eight episodes to undertake, there’s far less chance of stretching the material (and our patience for it) thin, or of running out of ideas and undermining the show’s integrity with sub-par writing just to pad things out.

Unsaddled from that burden, “Reboot” manages to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout each episode of its first season. That alone is enough for us to look forward to season two.

Television

Trans trailblazer helps queer the sci-fi genre in ‘The Peripheral’

Alexandra Billings on increasing representation in Hollywood

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Alexandra Billings in ‘The Peripheral.’ (Photo courtesy Amazon Prime)

Alexandra Billings has been a pioneering trans performer several times over, but she tells us that her recurring role as Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer in “The Peripheral” – Amazon Prime’s series adaptation of William Gibson’s 2014 book of the same name – is a more personal first for her.

“I love science fiction! This is really my bag, and I’ve never done anything like it before!”

Created by Scott B. Smith, who co-executive produced the show alongside “Westworld” creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the show is a mystery-thriller set not just in one future but in two. Beyond the depressingly prescient dystopian one inhabited by protagonist Flynne Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) lies another, from which the surviving remnants of humanity employ advanced computer technology to reach back and alter the past. The stakes are high – there’s an apocalypse involved — and a complicated, “Black Ops”-style secret war going on between factions struggling for control makes them even higher. Even for someone who doesn’t look for these things, the allegorical comparison with our own world is impossible to miss; but then science fiction, done right, has always been a prime genre for making social, cultural, and political commentary – and author Gibson, widely credited with creating the whole “cyber-punk” sub-genre, knows how to do it right.

Billings recently spoke with the Blade about the show, among other things. Our conversation is below:

BLADE: It’s refreshing to see you in something like this. We’re not used to seeing such strong representation in these kinds of stories.

ALEXANDRA BILLINGS: Usually, if trans characters were in sci-fi in the past, we were plugged in – they were cisgender characters that trans people played and then they turned trans. But Lowbeer is written as a trans woman. That was extraordinary, and it was thrilling to me.

BLADE: She’s a very strong presence.

BILLINGS: She’s kind of a guide, and she also has great power – not mystical power, or magical, but intellectual. And that’s one of the wonderful things about this show that I want to stress – it’s very female-centric, very female-heavy. There’s gender identity that is addressed, there are women of color that have great power and great strength and intellect. These are smart, witty, competent, capable women. No female depends on any other power except their own to be able to survive in the world of this story, and I think that matters, too.

BLADE: Did you ever imagine you would be playing a part like this in a mainstream Hollywood project?

BILLINGS: Oh no, God, no. When I first came to Hollywood, there were five of us, basically, me and Candis and Laverne and Trace Lisette, and a couple of other people, and that was it. Every time there would be an audition for a trans person – which was usually one of us in the hospital, or going to the hospital, or getting ready to go to the hospital, or something that had to do with the hospital – we would always meet each other. We finally just formed a little brunch club, we were like, ‘Let’s just get together after the next audition and go out. We might as well have food.’

Back then, there was just no concept of the transgender experience, because trans people were not writing any of these shows. You can’t have someone who’s never been through a lived experience pretend that they’ve lived that experience, it doesn’t make any sense. Now, with more trans writers, more trans producers and showrunners in Hollywood, things are starting to change. But this was a shock. I was shocked when I heard about this character, and really shocked when I read the script. It really is brilliant.

BLADE: That’s just one aspect of the show that feels forward-thinking. Don’t you think the whole concept of a future world influencing our present day really strikes a chord with the rise of a younger generation that is primed and ready to take the wheel?

BILLINGS: I think what this show does is that it shines a light. It’s a reflection of a human experience that is happening politically, globally, which is the takeover of righteousness, of our idea of what is helpful to the community – and what isn’t.

We have a whole shift that is happening in the United States right now, which is a younger generation – the Gen Zs – saying ‘I don’t like the way a lot of the country talks about female empowerment, I don’t like what you’ve done to take away autonomy for female bodies or choices, I don’t like the way you talk about gender. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that I don’t like, so I want you out.” It’s why this ‘blue wave’ happened – because of them. There was this whole conservative movement before the midterms that was supposed to, like, take over, and it just fizzled out and died. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

BLADE: Let’s all hope you’re right. There’s such a disheartening backlash in some pockets of our country over queer rights in general. We still even have fight to preserve marriage equality.

BILLINGS: We have this whole group of people out there talking about ‘traditional marriage.’ That means nothing. I want to tell them, ‘Nothing exists inside that container – how far back do you want to go when you say ‘traditional’, do you still want to be able to vote? Stop being an idiot.’ 

BLADE: As someone on the battle lines, what would you like to see for the future of trans representation?

BILLINGS: We need to begin to have conversations that are so normalized about the transgender experience that we no longer talk about the transgender experience. We need to have an over-abundance of trans and nonbinary stories, of trans and nonbinary writers, producers, directors, creators, innovators, telling their own stories – so many of them that the cis-white-heteronormative patriarchy finally needs to step aside. That’s what needs to happen.

BLADE: That seems like a hard sell to the people still holding onto the reins of power.

BILLINGS: When I say things like that, all of Hollywood takes a huge intake of breath. They think it’s impossible. They can’t conceive of that to be true because they think, ‘What about MY stories? What about me?’ As if there was a shortage of those.

Look at Candace Cameron, who quit Hallmark and just came out and said, ‘I’m going to honor traditional marriage on my new channel, and those are the stories I’m going to tell.’ What she’s saying is, ‘These two heteronormative cisgender people are the norm, that’s what we’re going to draw a circle around. Those are the only people that are going to be represented, that’s what we’re telling every single queer youth on the planet is the thing to be.’ That’s the message? So everybody else needs to move aside? That doesn’t make you a trailblazer, it makes you a coward.

BLADE: There’s another “C word” that comes to mind.

BILLINGS: (Laughing) That too.

You can watch “The Peripheral” on Amazon Prime.

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‘American Horror Story’ goes full gay in ‘NYC’

Anthology features leather daddies, divas, baths, and gruesome murders in 1981

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Russell Tovey stars in the new season of AHS. (Photo courtesy FX)

It’s hard to believe that “American Horror Story” is now more than a decade old – yet at the same time, it feels like it’s been on the air forever.

Arguably the signature accomplishment of gay entertainment mogul Ryan Murphy, who’s been behind some of the most acclaimed, controversial, and campy programming of our contemporary era, it’s a show that has met all three of those descriptors – often at the same time – while bringing a legion of die-hard fans back for more each season. That’s not an easy thing to accomplish, but Murphy’s “AHS” juggernaut has managed to keep itself going for 11 years thanks to its anthology format.

It has also, from its inception, been one of the queerest shows on television.

This might be stating the obvious, considering that Murphy typically includes multiple queer storylines in each season and employs a host of out queer actors, not to mention maintaining an unabashedly queer sensibility in the show’s aesthetic and bringing in the occasional iconic diva. We only bring it up here because for its latest installment, which premiered with two episodes on FX last week (just in time for Halloween), “American Horror Story” has gone “gayer” than ever.

Titled simply “NYC,” it’s set against the backdrop of 1981 New York and focuses squarely on the city’s thriving gay community. As anyone with even a basic knowledge of queer cultural history already knows, it’s a heady time and place for a gay man to be – but it’s also a time and place on the cusp of soon-to-descend devastation.

For most of the show’s characters, however, AIDS is not even a blip on the horizon, at least not yet. Instead, they’re facing a different kind of plague: a wave of grisly murders, targeting gay men, has left a growing pile of dismembered bodies in its wake, and to make matters worse, the NYPD seem uninterested in doing anything about it – or rather, most of them do. Patrick (Russell Tovey), a closeted police detective, has been cautiously pressing his superiors to take the situation more seriously, but it hasn’t been enough to nudge them into action; it also hasn’t been enough for his lover, Gino (Joe Mantello), an out-and-proud journalist who has made the mysterious killings into his paper’s No. 1 cause, and for whom Patrick’s refusal to share information about the case for fear of being “outed” has become a sore spot in their relationship.

The stalemate may be about to give way, though. When a young man named Adam (Charlie Carver) shows up at the station to report his roommate’s disappearance after a night of cruising in the Ramble, Patrick breaks his silence at home and tells Gino about the incident, encouraging him to pursue the story and giving him a lead to follow, and embarking on a clandestine investigation of his own; likewise, Adam, resolving to find his missing friend after having his concerns dismissed by the police, traces a scrap of a clue to Theo (Isaac Powell), a rising-star photographer, and his art dealer boyfriend Sam (Zachary Quinto), whose dark secrets may or may not be connected with the murders. Meanwhile, somewhere in the “gayborhood,” a killer still lurks, and the body count continues to climb.

If you’re thinking that the story – written by Murphy and frequent creative collaborator Brad Falchuk – is an allegory in which the hunt for a fictional serial killer (a favorite “AHS” trope) is used as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis, you’re probably not wrong. That doesn’t mean that AIDS doesn’t exist in this “AHS” version of the early ‘80s; a side story featuring epidemiologist Dr. Hannah Wells (Billie Lourd), glimpsed only briefly so far, has broached the subject of the disease, and it seems likely to become a big part of whatever endgame the show’s creators have in mind.

That endgame is anyone’s guess. “AHS” has a reputation for throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks; almost every season has left the gate with a provocative premise and an intriguing bundle of ideas – and while some have thrillingly lived up to their potential and others have devolved into a self-indulgent mess (though viewers’ assessment of which is which may vary wildly, depending on which viewer you ask), even the best of them have usually allowed at least one or two threads to trail off and disappear. “NYC,” at this early stage, could go either way or land somewhere in between.

Admittedly, it shows a great deal of promise. Obviously thrilled to explore a seminal moment in queer history, the series seems to delight in the sights, the sounds, and the happenings of early-‘80s Manhattan. There are scenes in the historic baths, complete with a singing diva (Patti LuPone, of course) to entertain the boys in between hook-ups; an artist-turned-impresario (Gideon Glick) throws a massive party in an abandoned pier-side warehouse, where everybody who’s anybody (or ever wants to be) gathers for a drug-and-disco-fueled night of art, fashion, and hedonistic fun; a Quentin Crisp-ish queer elder (Denis O’Hare) holds court in a dimly lit dive, and macho men engage in aggressive frottage at the leather-and-levi bar a few streets over. It’s the kind of vivid and nostalgic period recreation that Murphy’s productions have become famous for – detailed, colorful, immersive, and just glossy enough to make it feel like a fondly remembered dream – and it’s one of the pleasures of watching the show.

At the same time, there’s something unsettling about watching this Tarantino-esque distortion of a history that strikes such a deep chord in the queer imagination. With a main storyline that seems akin to a true-crime rewrite of “The Normal Heart” and a gallery of background characters that are clearly reimagined versions of real-life figures like Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Victor Hugo and more, Murphy and Falchuk’s audacious (some might say sensationalistic) approach to melding LGBTQ heritage into a pop-culture horror narrative – and one the evokes William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 thriller “Cruising,” at that – might hit a little too close to home for audiences who see this particular real-life chapter as horrific enough without fictional embellishment.

Still, as “AHS” has proven many times before, it’s not afraid to disturb its fans – and that doesn’t just mean with gore and shock value, though there’s always plenty of that. Its horrors are rooted in our social zeitgeist, in our traumatic memories and in the vast uncertainty of our life in the here and now. 

“NYC” – coming as it does at a time when anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and homophobic ideologies make the hard-won advancement of our community feel all too precarious – is no different. Thus far, no overtly supernatural elements have emerged (though that may change), but by invoking specters that continue to haunt us, hovering in the shadows around our safe spaces until they can leap out and catch us off guard, it’s a ghost story, nonetheless.

It even has the potential to be a good one, if Murphy and company can continue to reach the bar they’ve set for themselves with the first two episodes. Judging from the “AHS” track record, they have a roughly even chance.

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Television

For Years to Come; irreverent romantic gay dramedy coming soon

Gay man who falls in love with his dead mother’s nurse, while struggling to reconcile with his elderly father…who’s secretly a porn director

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James Patrick Nelson stars in 'For Years to Come' (Screenshot/Vimeo)

HOLLYWOOD – For Years to Come is an irreverent romantic dramedy about a gay man who falls in love with his dead mother’s hospice nurse, while struggling to reconcile with his elderly father…who’s secretly a porn director.

The new half-hour TV pilot directed by Micah Stuart will premiere on the festival circuit in early 2023. Writer-creator James Patrick Nelson stars opposite film/TV veteran Richard Riehle.

Stuart, an Emmy nominated editor, writer and the director, who is based in Los Angeles, released the trailer Saturday ahead of the film festival circuit premiere early next year:

For Years To Come Trailer from Micah Stuart on Vimeo.

Creator and star actor James Patrick Nelson sat down with me in an interview on my RATED LGBT RADIO show a year ago to talk about this project and highlights from his career.

“Limited representation fuels internalized homophobia” asserts Nelson.  “How do queer people learn to cherish the remarkable nuances of our identities if we rarely see nuanced, authentic portraits of ourselves on screen?”

As an award winning film maker, James has set a creative target for himself and others in the industry regarding LGBTQ characters: they need to be “richly complex, multi-faceted human beings, with endlessly diverse and distinct experiences, and we deserve to be seen, for all that we are.”

On the show we discussed this objective and queer representation in film up until now.  Plus, we will talk about his newest project, For Years to Come.

********************

Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] .

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Television

“Dr. Jackie: Unlicensed Psychotherapist” premieres on OUTtv

Jackie Beat’s new series is just what the (unlicensed) doctor ordered. The show is available exclusively on OUTtv.com & on the OUTtv Apple TV

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Jackie Beat courtesy of OutTV

NEW YORK – While much of the world spent the pandemic sheltering in place and binging on Netflix in an attempt to stave off madness, innovative (and already insane) Jackie Beat found herself pounding a different drum.

The veteran drag queen known for belting out hilariously filthy song parodies while hurling cruel insults at delighted audience members immersed herself in online academia, only to emerge several hours later with… no formal education, but a self-declared title that everybody agreed would also be a kickass concept for a TV show, and a pretty good title to boot: “Dr. Jackie: Unlicensed Psychotherapist.”

And so, on this day, September 19, 2022, it shall be so: “Dr. Jackie” premieres on OUTtv with new episodes each week through October 24. Watch the trailer HERE. The premise is simple: Dr. Jackie runs her “practice” out of an office managed by her “cute but confused assistant” (played by longtime creative collaborator Sherry Vine, whose ballsy, bonkers variety show had its premiere season on OUTtv last year). Sherry’s the dutiful gatekeeper who shepherds a revolving cast of funny, famous people (mostly top-notch drag queens) into their sessions with tough-but-fair, decidedly uncredentialed Dr. Jackie.

“It’s such a great feeling to not only entertain people, but be able to help them, too,” said Dr. Jackie, in a press announcement for her six-part series. “It’s a real win-win. I’m very proud of the fact that I am able to make mental health just a little more glamorous and fun!  And if anyone wants to cancel me for ‘mocking’ pyschotherapy, please do it! I haven’t been on THAT reality television show so I need all the publicity I can get!”

Taking a leap of faith that “Dr. Jackie” will be up to the level of quality we associate with the sold-out stage shows of Jackie Beat—and also betting heavily that Dr. Jackie has already figured out a way to dispense prescription drugs—The Los Angeles Blade is happy to generate more publicity for the good Doctor, who along with Sherry Vine took some pre-premiere time to participate in the spirited Q&A you see below.

The Los Angeles Blade (Blade): How did the show come about? Is this a product of your frequent collaborations with Sherry Vine?

Jackie Beat (Jackie): Sherry gets all the credit for making this happen! After being in show business for over three decades, I sort of had the attitude of, “This will never happen”—but Sherry was beyond optimistic and determined. I’m sure the success of her variety show on OUTtv helped. Oh, and my beauty!

Sherry Vine (Sherry): We had talked about this idea for a few years and I said, “Let me run with this and see if I can get it picked up” and Jackie said, “OK.” I went to PEG and OUTtv who did my variety show, and they immediately said, “Yes.” I worked very hard on the pre-production and filming but was less involved in the post-production. Jackie had a very clear vision of how she wanted it to look and sound so other than offering my opinions, I let her run with it.

Blade: How did the pandemic impact the shooting of episodes?

Jackie: We obviously had to adhere to very strict COVID protocols… Testing, masks, limiting the cast and crew, etc. But once this queen had gotten the green light on her own TV show, no pesky little virus was gonna stop her from getting it done!

Blade: Is there improvisation? If so, discuss how that played out.

Jackie: Yes, and everyone really delivered! We had an outline—a beginning, middle, end, maybe a plot twist or two—but then we just let people go for it. The hardest part, as you can imagine, is not cracking up. There was also quite a bit of stuff that was so out-there and just plain disturbing that we were like, “Oh God, we can’t use that!” The brilliant improvising also made it very difficult to edit because there was so much gold!

Blade: What part, if any, did you play in the editing? How did the editing process impact the show’s pacing and style?

Jackie: Well first off, the editor, Kain O’Keeffe, is a genius! He really has great comic timing so that certainly helped. I have worked with some editors who are technically amazing but don’t really get comedy. Kain’s instincts are great. And he also kept his cool—most of the time, LOL—working with this control freak. I was really very painstaking in the editing, because one beat or one moment or one word can change everything. The most frustrating part was having to watch each episode 50 or 60 times. I was like, “Is this even funny?” The answer to that question, of course, is YES!

Blade: With “Dr. Jackie,” you enter the pantheon of small screen shrinks. What sets your style of therapy apart from colleagues like Lucy Van Pelt and Dr. Bob Hartley?

Jackie: First of all, I could be the illegitimate love child of those two because Lucy is an unqualified, self-centered bitch and Bob is dry and cool as a cucumber. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. A self-centered cucumber?

Blade: Talk about the role of ensemble and/or guest players.

Jackie: We were so blessed to get so many amazingly talented people—most of whom I consider friends. And I also love that people like Elvira [Cassandra Peterson] or Margaret Cho, who couldn’t shoot in person, were able to be involved and get “emergency phone sessions” thanks to modern technology! I have several “Drag Race” stars such as Bianca Del Rio, Alaska Thunderfuck, Bob The Drag Queen, Katya, Trixie Mattel, BenDeLaCreme, Tammie Brown, Kelly Mantle and Monét X Change but I also wanted to include supremely talented friends of mine such as Mario Diaz, Nadya Ginsburg, Daniele Gaither, Drew Droege, Sam Pancake, Calpernia Addams, Selene Luna, Pete Zias, Roz Hernandez, and Muffy Bolding. 

Blade: Sherry, you play Jackie’s sidekick. Is the dynamic similar to, different than, what we see when the two of you work together on stage?

Sherry: Well the dynamic is different in terms of I’m playing her receptionist and she is the star—this time! Lol. But after 30 years of performing together we have a natural chemistry and play off of each other so well. It was scripted but of course there was plenty of improvisation. We were cracking up the whole time! On stage and on camera we are usually in synch—I know exactly where she’s going.

Blade: Jackie, what can decades-long fans of your stage work expect from a show not grounded in parody songs? 

Jackie: They can expect to be laugh and be entertained so… Same old thing!

Blade: Jackie, Sherry, what’s happening between now and the end of the year, in terms of traveling and performing live?

Jackie: I’m doing lots of writing right now, but I will never stop performing. I will do my annual holiday tour, of course. I’m doing my holiday show at The Palm in Puerto Vallarta on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!

Sherry: We are now in pre-production for “The Sherry Vine Variety Show” Season 2! Yay! We start filming at the end of October, so I’m writing, casting, recording, etc. Lots of exciting guests and surprises—and Jackie will be returning as my partner in crime. 

Blade: How do you find performing and living in the “post-pandemic” era: Has it change the way you do things, creatively and personally? What lessons did we learn or ignore from all that time sheltering in place?

Jackie: People seem very appreciative of live shows right now. It’s like they didn’t realize just how precious those moments of sitting in a darkened theater or nightclub watching a live performer was until it was suddenly gone. I have also learned that if you are naturally funny and talented you can entertain people no matter what – even on their laptop or phone. I was very happy to learn that my comedy and magic could survive and translate to that format. Again, I ain’t never gonna let no pesky virus stop me from doing what I do!

“Dr. Jackie: Unlicensed Psychotherapist”—written by Jackie Beat—is directed by John Mark Hostetler and produced by Producer Entertainment Group (PEG) for OUTtv. As of September 19, the show is available exclusively on OUTtv.com and on the OUTtv Apple TV Channel in the US and Canada, OUTtvGo.com and the OUTtv Amazon Prime Channel in Canada and FROOT.tv in the UK and Ireland.

Follow Jackie Beat:

Website: HERE

Instagram – HERE

Website – HERE

Twitter – HERE

Facebook – HERE

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Fall TV offers vampires, royals, and return to Gilead

‘Handmaid’s Tale’ even more essential after fall of Roe

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Sam Reid and Jacob Anderson star in an updated ‘Interview with the Vampire.’ (Photo courtesy of AMC)

Once upon a time, TV premieres were the province of fall, and there was something exciting about seeing all the new titles unveiled. In the streaming era, of course, new shows debut all year long – but we think there’s still a special excitement surrounding the ones that come out at this time of year. Call us old-fashioned.

Here’s our list of the shows we think you’ll find watch-worthy:

THE HANDMAID’S TALE (Hulu, Sept. 14)
The critically acclaimed and popular series based on Margaret Atwood’s chillingly prescient dystopian novel just dropped the first episode of its fifth season, in which now-escaped refugee June (Emmy-winner Elisabeth Moss, “Mad Men,” “Top of the Lake,” “The Invisible Man”) works from afar to be reunited with her daughter, while her co-conspirators in theocratic Gilead find an unlikely ally in Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Meanwhile, Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), now a widow in Toronto after the violent end met by her husband at the end of season four, attempts to raise her profile as her homeland’s influence spreads into Canada. The ominous too-close-to-home quality that made this series tough-but-essential viewing during the Trump years has taken on a renewed power with the fall of Roe v. Wade, which means its latest (and possibly final) installment will likely be a must-watch for more audiences than ever. Also starring Max Minghella, Bradley Whitford, O-T Fagbenle, Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel, and Sam Jaeger.

MONARCH (Fox, Sept. 20)
Self-described as “a Texas-sized, multi-generational musical drama about America’s leading family of country music” and starring Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon “Dead Man Walking,” Thelma & Louise,” “Feud”) as a “tough-as-nails” country music legend, this ambitious new offering from creator/writer/executive producer Melissa London Hilfers features a lesbian couple among its principal characters and looks to be cut from the same guilty-pleasure cloth as all the classic primetime soaps the queer community has always loved. The saga of a fictional country music dynasty with superstars Dottie and Albie Roman at its center, it promises plenty of scandal, sex, bad behavior, and music (both original songs and covers) as it unwinds the secrets and lies at the heart of their success and forces them to protect the family legacy – from both rivals and each other. Featuring multi-Platinum country music star and three-time ACM winner Trace Adkins as Sarandon’s other half, the series also stars Anna Friel, Joshua Sasse, Beth Ditto, Meagan Holder, Inigo Pascual, Martha Higareda, and Emma Milani.

REBOOT (Hulu, Sept. 20)
From “Modern Family” creator Steven Levitan comes this good-naturedly irreverent (and queer-inclusive) send-up of the Hollywood entertainment machine featuring “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom as a TV writer who gets greenlighted on her pitch for a revival of a beloved sitcom from the early 2000s – a dream come true, until her hopes for a more “woke” update of the outdated classic are threatened by the involvement of the show’s original creator (Paul Reiser, “Mad About You”). Making things even more unpredictable is the original cast (Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, Johnny Knoxville, and Calum Worthy), whose complicated history of offscreen relationships and personal dysfunctions is part of the package deal that comes with reuniting them to reprise their roles. Fast, funny, and full of the rapid-fire comic zingers Levitan’s shows are famous for, it’s a shrewd and deliciously “meta” satire that pokes fun of all the usual Hollywood flaws and foibles – not to mention currently raging generational conflict of attitudes and values – while making sure its gallery of goofy-but-lovable characters are always the main attraction. This one is a definite gem.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (AMC, Oct. 2)
For the many devoted followers of author Anne Rice, who sadly passed away at 80 last December, this one is huge. Ever since it was first published in 1976, Rice’s gothic tale of a New Orleans vampire revealing his 200-year history as a denizen of the night has been embraced by queer fans, who saw their own outsider experience reflected in its sensual and sensitive cast of undead protagonists. The novel spawned an entire series of books – “The Vampire Chronicles” – that enriched and expanded the stories of her beloved characters and spread them across a vast historical landscape, and branched off into other sagas populated by more of Rice’s supernatural creations; a 1994 film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise, though successful, felt straight-washed to many of Rice’s readers (and the less said about 2002’s “Queen of the Damned,” the better), but series creator Rollin Jones has already promised his new adaptation – modernized from the original’s mid-70s setting – will be true to the queer subtext of the author’s original work. The involvement of Christopher Rice (the author’s son) as an executive producer bodes well that such promises will be honored. Starring “Game of Thrones” favorite Jacob Anderson as Louis and Australian actor Sam Reid as Lestat, the 8-episode first season will also feature Bailey Bass, Assad Zaman, Eric Bogosian, Chris Stack, Maura Grace Athari, and Kalyne Coleman.

THE YOUNG ROYALS (Netflix, Nov. 2)
The popular Swedish teen drama about the inconvenient romance between young Prince Wilhelm and his classmate Simon (Edvin Ryding and Omar Rudberg, respectively) returns for a second season that sees its protagonist embarking on a plan of revenge meant to win back Simon’s trust, giving rise to complications that threaten the entire monarchy.

PLANET SEX WITH CARA DELVINGNE (Hulu, Nov. 18)
For those with a taste for the provocative, there’s this promising docuseries, in which model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne goes for a deep dive into some of the biggest questions about sexuality. According to publicity materials, the show is an “immersive journey” in which the star “puts her mind and body on the line in search of answers regarding human sexuality, its joys, mysteries, and constantly changing nature.” Delevingne, who appeared in a recurring role on the second season of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” opposite friend Selena Gomez, came out as pansexual in 2020, telling Variety, “Growing up, I didn’t really see many people like me, so I’m just really grateful to be one of those people representing.” We can get behind that, and we’ll be watching when the show drops later this fall.

In addition to these, there’s A TRIO OF SHOWS from Netflix with TBD Premiere Dates:

EAST-BAKE BATTLE – Season 1 of a new culinary competition show hosted by “Queer Eye” heartthrob Antoni Porowski.

DEAD END: PARANORMAL PARK – The delightful animated adventure based on Hamish Steele’s graphic novels about a transgender boy named Barney and his friends, who secretly work as the “demon cleanup crew” at a haunted theme park returns for a second season. Real-life trans actor Zach Barach provides the voice of Barney.

WENDELL & WILD – Animated denizens of the underworld also inhabit this new stop-motion series from collaborators Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) and Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) about a scheming pair demon brothers trying to be summoned into the Land of the Living by a guilt-ridden 13-year-old. Voice talent includes Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Lyric Ross, Angela Bassett, James Jong, Ving Rhames, and trans actor Sam Zelaya.

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‘Monarch’s’ hot butterfly: an interview with Kevin Cahoon

Out actor/singer on Fox’s new show and falling in love with Beth Ditto

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Kevin Cahoon stars as Earl in the new Fox series ‘Monarch.’ (Photo courtesy FOX)

Fox’s new musical nighttime soap opera “Monarch” is to country music as the network’s “Empire” was to hip-hop. Complete with over-the-top characters, familial intrigue, infidelity, and tragedy. Oh, and a few queer characters, too. Among those characters is hair and makeup artist Earl, played by out actor and singer Kevin Cahoon. In addition to occasionally being the much-needed source of comic relief, Earl also plays the irreplaceable best friend of country music queen Dottie Roman, played by none other than Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon. Fortunately for us, Kevin was kind enough to make time in his schedule to answer a few questions.

BLADE: I first became aware of you as a performer via your music and your band Ghetto Cowboy. Your debut album “Doll” won an OutMusic Award in 2006. When you look back at that time, how do you feel about it?

KEVIN CAHOON: That’s one of the proudest achievements I’ve ever had in my life; winning an OutMusic Award for “Doll.” It really is! It’s on every bio, every résumé. I was so proud to have received it because, in a way, I was coming from the theater, and to do this as my first foray into music, creating rock ‘n’ roll and pop songs; it just felt like the warmest embrace. I was so honored to receive that. That whole period of my life, with Ghetto Cowboy, and playing all of those incredible venues, like Don Hill and CBGB’s. To have been a part of that and to have been a part of the queer music scene at that time felt special. The LGBTQIA community is still moving forward, trying to gain equality across the board. But at that time this was (during) “don’t ask, don’t tell.” This was before marriage equality.

BLADE: The early 2000s.

CAHOON: Yes, it was even before “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The culture had no understanding about this music and these people that really were making this music. So, it really felt like the outsiders were crashing their way through the door. I even felt that way naming the band Ghetto Cowboy. I thought, “People who are disenfranchised and pushed to the outskirts of society are forced to live in a ghetto.” Whether it’s a Jewish ghetto or a Spanish ghetto or African American, or even rural people in Appalachia or in rural parts of this country, they are pushed, pushed, pushed to the boundaries. By naming the band that I thought, “Oh, this is what it is. We’re gonna come in. We’re gonna be cowboys in this and we are going to stake our claim from the outside.” It was an incredible moment, and it was so exciting, and it was one of the greatest times of my life.

BLADE: Have you had the time to work on any new original music?

CAHOON: I haven’t, and I want to. I think about it all the time. It’s coming, I promise. I have an idea for the long-awaited second album [laughs].

BLADE: As you mentioned, at the same time you were making this music, you were doing a lot of theater and have continued to focus on your acting career. Would you say you’re a singer who acts or an actor who sings?

CAHOON: I would say that I’m an actor who sings. Even with the rock ‘n’ roll, it was coming from a place of character, and a place of story. I felt like I was playing a character when I was fronting my band.

BLADE: You’re currently in the new Texas-set Fox series “Monarch” in which you play Earl Clark. What was it about the character of Earl that appealed to you as an actor?

CAHOON: First of all, it’s a network series with Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins. That was a giant appeal. As an actor, I was connected to the world because I grew up in Texas, I grew up in the rodeo and I have a real soft spot for it, if there’s a pair of cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, I’m gonna grab them and put them on. I love the whole aesthetic. I love the world. I love the outsider going out into the plains and staking a claim for himself. That’s the world of “Monarch.” This show biz, country-western family. It is the juiciest of fun soap operas you could ever imagine.

BLADE: It’s very much in the mold of a classic nighttime soap opera.

CAHOON: It is! In the greatest way. Who doesn’t love that? We all loved “Desperate Housewives,” “Nashville,” “Dallas,” and “Dynasty.” The character (I play) was inspired by a real person named Earl Cox. He is the premier hairstylist to every country star you can ever imagine. So, the (“Monarch”) creator, Melissa London Hilfers, saw his place in their world and thought, “Let’s create a character that is inspired by him.” So, it’s loosely inspired, but she ran with it. I (Earl) have worked for the family for decades. I have been the best friend of Dottie Roman, played by Susan Sarandon. The series evolves when you get to episodes six, seven, and eight, more is revealed as to what Earl knows, and how long he’s been around. He lives on the ranch (The Brambles) with the family. We shot on this incredible 140-acre ranch right outside of Atlanta. It was a dream. The job was a dream. I’m praying that I continue to have more of that dream [laughs]. We’ll see what happens when it gets to season two. 

BLADE: I’m so glad you said what you did about Earl and Dottie. There is a palpable exchange of affectionate feelings between them. Would you agree that without their gay hair and makeup people, most country divas would end up looking like Marjorie Taylor Greene?

CAHOON: Gay people are the motor in the pickup truck of the country music industry. I say that Earl Clark showed up to The Brambles with a suitcase full of rhinestones and a dream. His dream was to be in show business. To be close to an iconic diva of country music, which is Dottie Roman, played by Susan and he enjoys being that close to the first lady, and he enjoys his place as the major domo gatekeeper. He will do anything he has to do to retain that position. I think he loves getting dressed up. In the show, they have a fantastic rockabilly hairstyle for me and great, sparkly clothes. I told the wardrobe and hair team that he enjoys getting made-up just as much as he enjoys making Dottie up. That should be part of his essence. That he loves to be seen and he loves to show off and I think they accomplished that with their incredible wardrobe and hair. 

BLADE: Is there any possibility of Earl having a love interest?

CAHOON: There is. If a season two happens, I think that that is in the pipeline. 

BLADE: The queer energy in “Monarch”is powerful with you and singer/songwriter Beth Ditto, who plays Dottie’s and Albie’s (Trace Adkins) daughter Gigi, representing for us. What is it like working with Beth?

CAHOON: We fell in love immediately. I’m from Texas, Beth is from Arkansas. We fell in love over Zoom. That’s how much I love her. She said to me over the Zoom, “Oh, I can tell I’m gonna fall in love with you.” And I said, “Well, I’ve been in love with you for years because I know who you are. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me for the rest of your life.” We have a daily text exchange, Beth and I, which I cherish, and it happens late at night, usually, because we’re both night owls. This text exchange can be about how much we both love Ritz crackers [laughs]. It can go deep, or it can go surface. But I love her and I cherish her, and I’m so lucky that I’ll have her in my life for the rest of my life. 

BLADE: Could there someday be a creative collaboration between Kevin and Beth?

CAHOON: Yes! Come on. I would just die and go to heaven. That would be a dream. Maybe we can come up with a song for the show.

BLADE: Fantastic. Will “Monarch”’s audience ever have a chance to hear you sing? 

CAHOON: Well, I hope that’s another thing in season two. Let’s get a boyfriend and let’s get a song. 

BLADE: “Monarch”is set in Texas. As a Houston native, how do you feel about the way Texas is depicted in “Monarch,”as well as in other shows set in the state?

CAHOON: Texas is such an interesting place. Because you have these hotbeds of liberal progressiveness.

BLADE: Austin. 

CAHOON: Austin, Houston, Dallas. Then, on the outskirts, it’s pretty red. But I do have to say that within those red pockets, LGBTQIA people are there. They are part of the fabric. They are accepted, they are beloved. They are part of the world. 

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Iconic villain is out of the closet in final ‘Saul’ season

One of the most well-drawn queer characters in TV history

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Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in ‘Better Call Saul.’ (Photo courtesy AMC)

When “Better Call Saul” aired its finale last month, it was the end of an era. The critically lauded prequel series to “Breaking Bad” had amassed a loyal following by offering fans a chance to return for a deeper dive into the morally ambiguous universe Vince Gilligan had created around teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) nearly 15 years ago.

Meticulously unfolding the saga of deceptively clownish strip mall lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), it was elegantly cinematic, inscrutably layered, and impeccably crafted, proving itself every bit the equal of its predecessor. If “Breaking Bad” was a slow-burn crime thriller with the scope and dimension of a Shakespeare tragedy, “Better Call Saul” was a character-driven neo-noir meditation on the inevitability of corruption – yet they were unmistakably tied together by a signature note of irony and a relish for Hitchcockian suspense. They were also populated by a memorable cast of characters that viewers grew to love, despite their moral ambiguities – and among them, as “Saul” revealed at last, is one of the richest and most well-drawn queer characters in television history.

If you’ve never watched either show, you might be understandably surprised to learn that Gilligan’s blood-spattered mythos contained any significant LGBTQ presence. Indeed, even those who’ve seen both might not have realized it, though clues were planted all along the way; before we say more, however, it’s only fair to warn that there are spoilers for both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” beyond this point.

We first meet Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in “Breaking Bad” as the dapper and polite owner of fast-food chicken franchise Los Pollos Hermanos, though we quickly learn he runs a much more ambitious business, too. As a high-level meth distributor for a Mexican drug cartel with ambitions to capture the market for himself, he becomes Walter White’s principal rival, and the two men wage an escalating war of manipulation and dominance until Gus finally meets his fate in an explosive scene near the end of season four. It’s a high point in a series full of them, an exit worthy of a villain as complex and compelling as Gus.

It’s another scene in “Breaking Bad,” however, that provides this sinister and Machiavellian drug lord with the dimension that recasts him as a tragic hero. In an earlier episode, we are given a flashback to his younger days in Mexico, in which we learn that his meth enterprise began as a partnership with Max (James Martinez). The pair is given an audience with cartel boss Don Eladio (Steven Bauer), hoping to win his patronage; instead, they are met with ridicule and insinuations about their sexuality before Gus is forced to watch Max’s execution by gunshot to the head. Most queer viewers likely recognized immediately that the insinuations about the two men were based in an obvious truth, and that they were indeed much more than business partners; others remained unconvinced, despite details laced throughout the narrative that reinforced the obvious implications about their relationship. Either way, the memory of this horrific event was clearly established as a key to our understanding of Gus Fring.

Not until “Better Call Saul” do we get more detail about Gus’s subsequent ascendency to power, and it reveals what we’ve suspected all along – his drug empire is an avenue to get revenge against the family responsible for his lover’s brutal death – with the show’s signature subtextual subtlety. When he exits the series this time around, it’s in a scene that might almost be charming if not for the weight of doom that hangs over it, in which the drug lord, celebrating a crucial victory against the cartel, treats himself to an elegant dinner for one at his favorite restaurants. 

Seated at the bar, he engages in flirtatious conversation with a handsome sommelier (Reed Diamond) who obviously returns his interest. It’s a brief moment of respite that ends with Gus abruptly finishing his wine and unceremoniously leaving the restaurant when his companion temporarily steps away. Resigned to a destiny where he can afford no emotional connections and still haunted by the trauma of that long ago day in Mexico, he opts to walk away from the possibility of romantic connection, and our perception of this sinister figure is softened by our recognition of the scope of his tragedy.

With the airing of this scene, viewers who had resisted the idea of a gay Gus Fring had no choice but to concede – especially after showrunner Peter Gould officially confirmed it on “The Ringer” podcast following the show. For the many who saw through Gus’s carefully cultivated mask all along, however, this confirmation was less a revelation than a validation. After decades of recognizing plainly visible queer subtext in mainstream Hollywood content, it’s refreshing to be told we weren’t just imagining it anymore.

Some might argue that Gus Fring is not the best example of inclusion; after all, he’s a cold and merciless criminal responsible for an untold number of deaths. Though we can feel some pity for him knowing his backstory, he is ultimately a monster, and could be construed on the surface as a throwback to the days when queer people were depicted only as villains or victims; his identity as a person of color only compounds the uncomfortable cultural associations that inevitably come to mind. Besides all that, he’s deeply closeted, at least with his cartel associates.

Such concerns, though, are not so easily applied when it comes to material like “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” These are not lazy, shallow shows that rely on tropes and expectations, but shrewd and layered works of art. All of Gilligan’s characters are flawed, even those who aren’t corrupt, and the world into which he puts them is a harsh but realistic place where doing the “right” thing is rarely a feasible option. Gus, regardless of his orientation, is a sinner among sinners, and – thanks to Esposito’s impeccable performance and the excellent work of the writers – he’s just as deeply human as any of the rest of them.

The best LGBTQ representation happens when queer characters are allowed to be simply characters. When their story has nothing to do with their queerness, yet their queerness is still part of their story, they can be truly authentic reflections of queer life in all its infinite facets. Gus Fring may not be a good role model, but he’s thrillingly real – and for that, Vince Gilligan deserves our thanks. Gus’s sexuality, cloaked onscreen only for the purpose of building a puzzle-box narrative, has been obvious all along to the viewers who saw his truth. Making it definitive is only a formality – one which not only deepens the tragic power of the “Breaking Bad” mythos, but asserts the essential truth that queerness exists in every area of human society, whether we are willing to recognize it or not.

Now, with his epic saga finally at an end, Gilligan says it’s time for him to walk away from the complex narrative he wove over the course of the two shows (and the feature film “El Camino,” which brought closure for fan-favorite character Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul), and although he’s not closing the door on the possibility of coming back to explore it further some time in the future, it’s not likely to be soon. For now, he’s turning his attention toward his next project – a sci-fi series in the vein of “The X-Files,” the show that first brought him to prominence during his multi-season-stint as a writer and showrunner. That means we have to say good-bye to the “Breaking Bad” universe, along with all its characters – but it also means we can look forward to seeing what he gives us next.

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‘A League of Their Own’ series proves there is crying in baseball

Amazon reboot of beloved film an engrossing dramedy

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Amazon’s ‘A League of Their Own’ is a queer-inclusive reboot of the classic film. (Photo courtesy of Prime Video)

Guess what? There is crying in baseball.

“A League of Their Own,” an entertaining, queered-up eight-episode series adaptation of the 1992 movie (of the same name) has dropped on Amazon Prime.

Like the movie, the series is the story of what life was like in 1943 for the players of the Rockford Peaches, one of the 10 teams that made up the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Women got to play because many of the male major leaguers were away fighting World War II.

As in the film, the characters in the reboot are fictional, but the Rockford Peaches and the league were real. From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played for the AAGPBL.  

The 1992 film was loved by many. But back then, mainstream movies didn’t have much of a queer quotient, and racial injustice was, largely, off the radar.

Thankfully, Amazon’s reboot of “League” expands the narrative to include characters that are lesbian, queer, questioning, trans and/or Latina and Black as well as hetero and white.

The series, created by Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”) and Will Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”), deals with racism, homophobia, transphobia, gender and sexism against the life-changing foreground of World War II.

Through Jacobson’s and Graham’s (who are queer) creative sleight-of-hand, “League” is an engrossing dramedy rather than a didactic snooze.

As with any self-respecting baseball story, a voice in “League” is heard saying “there’s no crying in baseball.”

But if you don’t, while watching this series, shed at least a few tears of exhilaration, wistfulness or sadness, you, like the Tin Man in Oz, may not have a heart.

In the reboot, Jacobson plays the Peaches’s catcher Carson. (Geena Davis played the catcher Dottie in the movie).

Carson’s husband Charlie is off fighting in the war. Carson, stuck in a small midwestern town, leaps onto a train. So she can try out for the Peaches.

Carson, once she’s on the team, quickly becomes infatuated with her glam teammate Greta (played wonderfully by D’Arcy Carden). When Dove (Nick Offerman), the Peaches’s coach splits, Carson is called upon to lead the team.

Carson doubts that she has what it takes to step into Dove’s shoes. Like many of the characters, Carson discovers her sexuality and questions what she wants to do with her life. Will she stay with Charlie after the war? How could she live with Greta (or any woman) when polite “ladies” didn’t even say the word “lesbian” in public?

An equally compelling narrative of the series is the story of Max (Chanté Adams). Max is a fabulous pitcher. But there’s no way she could play for the Peaches because the AAGPBL is segregated and no Black women can be in the league.

Max, like Carson, is discovering her sexuality. She’s trying to suss out not only how she can fulfill her dream of playing baseball (given the racism of the sport and society), but how to be queer in a homophobic world.

One of the most intriguing things about “League” is its attentiveness to women’s friendships. Max’s BFF is Chance. Chance creates fab comic books. But she knows she’s playing against racist, sexist odds.

Carson and Max bond over their love of baseball and queerness. They know they’ll likely never see each other after the season ends or overcome the barrier of racial discrimination. But their friendship feels real.

In an homage to the movie, O’Donnell (Doris on Third Base in the film) appears in a lovely scene as Vi, the owner of a gay bar.

“How is any of this possible? How is this allowed?” Carson asks Vi. 

“It’s really not,” Vi says.

Yet, though same-sex marriage is clearly illegal, Vi refers to her partner as her wife. They have lived together for six years in a nice home, she tells Carson.

An annoying thing about the series is its anachronisms. Janis Joplin belts out “Piece of My Heart” in the soundtrack of one episode. Joplin in 1943? Fortunately, such misplaced cultural references are infrequent. 

The pace of the series is a bit slow in the first two or three episodes. But by the halfway point, you’ll be caught up in the game. “A League of Their Own” hits it out of the park!

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For Gaiman fans, ‘Sandman’ is a ‘Dream’ come true

Netflix series offers fantasy space where all feel welcome

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Tom Sturridge makes a dreamy Morpheus in ‘The Sandman.’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

For the millions of fans who have embraced Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” and its darkly beautiful, queer-inclusive mystical universe since it debuted in comic book form more than three decades ago, the arrival of a new Netflix series based on it is a very, very big deal – even if, for the uninitiated, it might be hard to understand why. After all, the streaming giant has already unleashed such a vast array of LGBTQ-friendly fantasy movies and shows that one more, welcome though it may be, hardly seems like anything new.

As any of the above-mentioned fans will quickly tell you, however, “Sandman” is not just any fantasy series. Initiated by DC Comics as a revival of an older comic book of the same name, it was handed over to Gaiman – then still a budding writer of comics with a few promising titles under his belt – with the stipulation that he keep the name but change everything else. The comic series he came up with went on to enjoy a 75-issue original run from 1989 to 1993, an era when an expanded literary appreciation for such works gave rise to the term “graphic novel”, and it joined “Maus” and “Watchmen” among the first few comics to be included on the New York Times Best Seller List. Arguably more important, it also generated a huge and diverse fan following, and its incorporation of multiple queer characters and storylines has inspired subsequent generations of comic book creators to envision new and inclusive fantasy worlds of their own.

Despite that success, it’s taken 33 years for it to finally be adapted for the screen. Beginning in the late ‘90s, attempts were made to develop “The Sandman” for film, but though a few scripts initially managed to win Gaiman’s approval, creative differences inevitably led to a dead end, and the Hollywood rumor mill began to buzz that the story was ultimately “unfilmable” – until 2019, when Netflix and Warner Brothers (parent company to DC Comics) officially reached a deal to bring it to the screen as a series, with Gaiman fully on board and a creative team in place that was determined to faithfully adapt the much-loved original for a contemporary audience.

The show that came from that decision, which premiered on Netflix Aug. 5, makes it clear that the long wait was more than worth it.

“The Sandman” of the title refers to the story’s leading figure – Dream (known also as Morpheus, among other names), one of seven elemental siblings whose mystical realms overlay and intertwine with the human world. As ruler of the dream world, he holds hidden power over all mankind – until a human sorcerer manages to trap him and imprison him on Earth for more than 100 years. Finally freed, he returns to his kingdom to find it in disarray, and he sets out to restore order and undo the damage done – a quest that will require him to enlist the aid of numerous (and sometimes less-than-willing) allies, both human and immortal, to save the cosmos from a chaotic force that has been unleashed in his absence.

Like any good myth cycle, it’s both an epic story and an episodic one, making it a much better fit for the long-form storytelling capacity of series television than for any of the one-off film adaptations that it almost became. In his sweeping, unapologetically allegorical saga of the ever-dueling forces within our human psyche, Gaiman uses broad strokes in composing his plot, recycling and reinventing timeless motifs and themes while relying on our comfortable acceptance of the familiar tropes of myth and magic to get us all on board; the narrative is a massive structure, but it’s not hard to follow the basics. Where “Sandman” becomes complex – and exceptional – is in the details Gaiman gave himself room to explore along the way, the human moments caught in between the monumental cosmic drama. 

It’s these parts of the story that have made his graphic novel iconic, more even than its gothic melancholy or its layered personification of primal forces into complex human archetypes; it’s there, too that he was able to explore a broad and diverse range of human experience, including many queer characters in a time when comic book literature was far from a queer-friendly space. It’s these things that made Gaiman’s comic a touchstone for a wide spectrum of fans – and they would have been the first things that would have been jettisoned had any of the potential “Sandman” films seen the light of day. Because Gaiman has held out for so long to make sure it could be done right, series television has finally given him the chance, as co-creator and co-executive producer (alongside David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg), to make it happen.

The big-budget Netflix production values certainly help, too, allowing the striking visual aesthetic of the comic – in which even the horrific can be exquisitely beautiful – to come thrillingly alive. The show’s many baroque and gruesome deaths bear testament to that, as does a fourth episode sequence when Morpheus’s quest requires him to descend into a Hell that evokes the macabre beauty of Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s “Inferno,” the very landscape itself made up of the writhing and tormented souls of the damned. The artfulness of this show’s scenic design lingers in the memory, appropriately enough, like images from a dream.

Still, it’s all just scenery without the players, and “Sandman” assembles a top-drawer cast capable of bringing Gaiman’s characters to life with the level of depth they deserve. Tom Sturridge makes for a compelling leading figure, capturing the titular character’s complex mix of coldness and compassion without ever losing our loyalty; he’s supported by an equally talented ensemble of players, including heavyweight UK stalwarts like Charles Dance, Joely Richardson, David Thewlis, and Stephen Fry among a host of less familiar faces, and there’s not a weak performance to be found among any of them.

As to whether the show’s writing does justice to the original, different fans will surely have different opinions. The story has been remolded to fit the modern world, and many elements of the comic have been reconfigured in the process. This is particularly true in terms of representation; though queer characters were always a part of the “Sandman” universe, the comic debuted 34 years ago, and much has changed since then. In bringing the story to the screen, the author and the rest of the creative team have brought things up to date, bringing more nuance to its queer representation even as it expands it wider, and reimagining many of its characters to reflect a more diverse and inclusive vision of the world. Inevitably, these choices may upset some die-hard fans – there’s already been the inevitable toxic outcry against the show’s gender-swapping of characters and the decision to cast actors of color in roles originally depicted as white.

Still, for those who loved the original for providing a fantasy space where ALL could feel welcome – exactly the way Neil Gaiman intended it to be – it’s hard to find a reason to complain.

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Television

NPH is ‘Uncoupled’ in new Netflix sitcom

Show lampoons queer NYC social scene’s mores and manners

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Neil Patrick Harris stars in ‘Uncoupled.’ (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Summer of 2022 might just go down in history as “The Summer of the Queer Romcom.” With movies and shows like “Heartstopper,” “Fire Island,” and “Anything’s Possible” already gracing our screens, and upcoming projects like Billy Eichner’s much-anticipated “Bros” still on the horizon, it seems like Hollywood is trying to make up for all those years of content in which LGBTQ people were only allowed to be shown as tragic victims or comic relief  – when we weren’t being erased altogether, that is – by giving us a glut of the kinds of happily-ever-after stories we never got to see about ourselves. It’s about time, and nobody is complaining.

Still, with all these feel-good romances heading our way, it was inevitable that we would eventually get something that looks at the flip side of that coin – a story about breaking up. What we might not have expected, however, is that it would be a comedy.

“Uncoupled,” the new Netflix series from Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman, is exactly that. It stars Neil Patrick Harris as Michael, who – as a successful Manhattan real estate broker with a close-knit group of friends and a 17-year loving relationship with the handsome Colin (Tuc Watkins) – seems to be living every gay man’s dream. He gets a rude awakening, however, when Colin, on the eve of his 50th birthday, blindsides him by abruptly packing up his things and moving out of their apartment, leaving him to face two nightmares he never saw coming – the loss of a person he believed was his soulmate, and the reality of being a 40-something single gay man in New York City.

Fortunately, he doesn’t have to do it alone. His business partner and confidante Suzanne (Tisha Campbell) is at his side to walk him through the painful stages of dealing with a breakup, as are his two closest friends, TV weatherman Billy (Emerson Brooks) and high-end art dealer Stanley (Brooks Ashmanskas). While it’s true that none of them are exactly qualified when it comes to giving relationship advice, he needs all the help he can get – especially when he begins to awkwardly fumble his way back into a dating scene that looks a lot different than he remembers.

As written by Star and Richman, with director Andrew Fleming at the helm, the show’s deep dive into the funny side of breakups doesn’t have much time for tears and regret. Playing out in the upscale, glamorous world of New York’s high gay society, it keeps the tone light and lifted, moving beyond the heartbreak as quickly as possible and setting its sights on the rich comedic territory to be found in the frolics and foibles of the privileged set. It’s a milieu that should come as no surprise considering that co-creator Star is the man responsible for “Sex and the City,” not to mention “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Melrose Place,” all of which banked on similar currency. Indeed, it’s easy to see Michael and his trio of compadres as natural successors to the iconic gal pals of “Sex and the City” – more diverse and openly queer, perhaps, but recognizably kindred in spirit.

Star’s co-creator brings his own pedigree into the mix, too. As an executive producer and writer on “Modern Family” (and similar duties on shows like “Frasier” and “Wings” before that), he doubtless has much to do with the whip-smart sitcom sensibility that both undercuts the show’s “guilty pleasure” appeal and enriches it. Indeed, much of the fun of “Uncoupled” comes from its lampooning of the queer social scene’s mores and manners – the shallow obsessions with youth and hotness, money and status, and all the other interpersonal dynamics that enable us to judge each other – and letting us laugh at the attitudes and pretensions we love to hate about ourselves. It allows us to let its characters off the hook, and ourselves, too, by reminding us that we are all only human, and that humans are sometimes ridiculous.

In service of that, “Uncoupled” has a stellar cast that not only has the comedic chops to sell its farcical goings-on but the nuance to go a little deeper. At the forefront, of course, is Harris, who deploys the confidence of a seasoned sitcom star to give us a fully realized leading character, and whose eternally boyish looks and persona have aged just enough to make him an ideal centerpiece for a story that is, in many ways, about growing up. Campbell more than holds her own next to him – their BFF chemistry makes them one of the more interesting platonic pairings in recent television memory – and Brooks and Ashmanskas turn their roles into much more than mere side characters. It’s a likable cast, across the board; yet the show’s most impressive acting turns might just come from two of its recurring supporting players – Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Hardin as a high-profile (and high maintenance) real estate client, and Broadway legend André De Shields as Michael’s elderly-but-regal neighbor – who bring some much-needed weight to the proceedings and make their scenes among the most memorable of the season.

Still, all the superficiality on display does sometimes wear thin, and some viewers might begin to wonder if Michael and his friends really are as vapid as their priorities often make them seem; and while all the characters get some hard lessons as the season progresses, it’s by no means certain they will learn from them, and these moments can feel like lip service in a show that sometimes seems to celebrate self-absorbed vanity even as it satirizes it.

Still, Star and Richman know their audience, and they’re not interested in wagging fingers at them. “Uncoupled” is not meant to be social criticism; it’s about learning how to live again when your heart gets broken. To that end, instead of turning Colin into just another stereotypical hated “ex” to be treated as an enemy and subjected to bitter scorn, or simply letting him leave and forgetting about him, they keep him in the picture. They never let us forget that their series, ultimately, is about a relationship; it may have changed, but it still exists, and there are overlapping threads between two lives that can never quite be untangled. That’s a decidedly un-shallow level of understanding, handled with a refreshing lack of maudlin sentiment or rancor, and it’s more than enough proof that the show has much more going for it than just shallow characters, sexy situations, and soapy plot twists.

More than that, it makes us interested in seeing where things might go in season two.

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